Fleeting Glance

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted March 01, 2001
by Angela R. Garber

When gonzalez plumbing opened in 1929, Henry Gonzalez Sr. would sit down in his kitchen every morning with Cuban coffee and two pieces of toast, take calls, jot down job descriptions on a scrap of paper, and send his guys out in the company's two trucks. When he was done with breakfast, he'd get in his car and go look for them.

Today, grandson Joseph Gonzalez, the third Gonzalez to run the Tampa, Fla. business, is managing 15 trucks and 30 employees. He has seen the business go from using paper and pencil to base station and radio transmitters and now, finally, to global positioning system technology (GPS) and wireless radios. He doesn't hop in a truck to track down drivers or wonder if that unusually long commute from one job site to another was a direct route. Instead he can take a call and look at a screen to see who is still working, which trucks are moving, and who should receive the next assignment.

"If my grandfather were around today, I don't think he'd believe it," he says. "He'd never believe that I could see how fast employees are driving and in which direction, or talk to them while they are on the job."

Until recently, GPS was a military technology, out of reach financially and technologically for mainstream America. Now a common tool for boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts, it is also making headway into the small business market. Trucking companies are an obvious fit, as are plumbers like Gonzalez. But this sort of fleet-management technology not only helps established businesses become more efficient and profitable, it also opens up opportunities for a new breed of delivery services that couldn't exist otherwise.

Speedy Deliveries
Felipe Del Corral was visiting friends in America when he saw what he thought was an ingenious idea: a video rental delivery service. After all, who wants to walk through the rain to stand in line at the video store when they could be cozied up in front of the fireplace? He checked into it and discovered that the actual delivery process was not being managed very well. He knew if he were to make this idea successful at home in London -- a city of 11 million people with no discernably logical street grid (there are no numbered streets, only names) -- he would need a tool to map out the most efficient routes for his delivery drivers.

Today, Del Corral's Icaru.com promises one-hour delivery of movies, video games, and snacks. To live up to that promise, he hired Piscataway , NJ-based Quadrix Solutions to create a custom backend solution that included geographical information systems (GIS) technology to map out delivery locations and note time of order. As the customers place their order on line, the GIS takes the user information and works it into a driver's schedule.

To keep drivers busy, but not driving like maniacs through the streets of London, the computer schedules five deliveries per trip for each driver. The system not only maps out the most efficient route to ensure that the customer's order arrives on time but also takes into consideration Icaru's overhead cost (such as if the driver is working on overtime or regular hourly pay rates).

"Without the detailed route maps, we'd have to worry about the drivers getting lost or driving from point A to point C and then having to circle back to point B," Del Corral says. "This way the customer gets her order on time, and the driver knows that he can make his deliveries in plenty of time without speeding about."

Del Corral now has five drivers and plans to employ up to 30 by mid-year. "We knew we needed to invest in this technology and create an efficient system if we wanted to make it," he says.

A Watchful Eye
While Del Corral needed the fleet management technology to get his business off the ground, Gonzalez wanted to better manage his drivers in order to keep his gas bills in check and to raise productivity. Gonzalez installed the @Road Mobile Resource Management system and Nextel Direct Connect cellular phone and two-way radio combination about a year ago.

We never knew where they were," he says. "For 12 years, we'd send them out and then jump from job site to job site trying to find them."

When the old radio transmitter began to show its age, Gonzalez started to look into fleet management solutions. "We were having problems with shrinkage, our gas bills were going through the roof, and I knew that some of the guys were slacking off," he says. "They'd take the trucks and go home or go to another job, so keeping tabs on them was important."

The fleet management system includes GPS and wireless technologies to help Gonzalez locate, schedule, and dispatch his plumbers. It also gives him accurate records for billing and maintenance schedules. Gonzalez considered putting map consoles in each truck, but decided the risk of accidents caused by a driver taking his eyes off the road was too great and that his drivers could just go around the block if they missed a turn.

"Once we installed the GPS, the gas bills dropped dramatically and slacking time became nonexistent," he says. Still, having all that knowledge made him think twice about micromanaging. "I told them that I wasn't trying to play Big Brother and if they needed to go home or run an errand just to tell me so."

Proof Positive
Knowing where his workers are also provides an important legal benefit. Florida law says that Gonzalez is responsible for his trucks and drivers when they are on the job, but the second that they veer off their designated route, Gonzalez's responsibility and liability ends and the driver's begins.

"My drivers are welcome to take the trucks home, but they know that they are responsible the second they divert from a job route, and they know that the GPS records will prove whether or not they were on the job when an incident occurs," he says. The GPS helps him make sure that his drivers are acting responsibly. "I saw a guy going 90 mph on the interstate once, so I called him on the radio and said, 'Take your foot off the gas!' He tried to deny it until I told him his truck number, the name of the road he was on, and which direction he was going."

The system helps Gonzalez charge his customers accurately. "Every once in a while you'll get a guy who thinks he's doing me a favor by overcharging, but that doesn't help business: it pushes it away," he says. "The work tickets have to match the GPS records of when the guy got to the site and when he left. That way, I know we're not overcharging or undercharging anybody."

Finally, should the need arise, those work tickets and GPS records protect Gonzalez's business. "We've taken them to court before to prove how long we were on the job site," he says. "Once we pulled out the computerized records, there was no question that we were telling the truth."

Gonzalez has figured out how to put this technology to work for him. "It's a tool and we use it," says Gonzalez. "We wouldn't work without our wrenches. Always let your tools do the work."

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